“Five burning questions” from Crystal Ball Run

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It’s #4 versus #7 for the PAC-12 North Championship, and everybody wants a piece of the Ducks.

Today in my inbox Allen Kenney of the website Crystal Ball Run, a national blog covering college football and the race for the BCS championship, weighed in with his “Five Burning Questions”:

1. Will Darron Thomas be ready to rock?

That’s a key question for the Ducks, crucial to this game. Last year against Stanford Thomas passed for 238 yards and 3 touchdowns and ran for 117 and another touchdown in a 52-31 win. He hasn’t been running much this season, and many fans are grousing about it. The coaches insist he’s making the right reads, and it’s hard to argue much, given that the Oregon offense has scored 47 points a game while rushing for 298 yards a game, fifth in the nation.

Since his knee injury three weeks ago against Arizona State, Thomas has looked out of rhythm, wearing a brace on the left knee, running only sparingly. He missed the Colorado game, got taken out in the second half against Washington State, and was just 13-25 passing against the Huskies last Saturday. Redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett sparked three victories, in relief against Arizona State, an emergency start at Colorado, and taking the reins in the second half against WSU.

There were murmurs among fans that maybe the kid had a bigger upside, especially after he flashed scrambling ability and some nifty moves on a handful of long runs. People quickly forgot that Thomas, despite his recent struggles, is 19-2 as the Oregon starter since taking over as a sophomore. He’s the guy with experience in big games, and Chip Kelly has been firm that he gives the Ducks their best chance to win.

Particularly with the brace, Thomas isn’t going to beat you with his legs. But he doesn’t have to. LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and dazzling impact freshman De’Anthony “The Black Momba” Thomas (no relation) provide plenty of explosiveness and misdirection in the running game. Thomas just has to operate the offense, make good reads and distribute the ball. He’s done that, but against #4 Stanford on the road, the Ducks need him to be sharper in the passing game, make some connections downfield and put the ball where his receivers can handle it easily. For the season he’s only been sacked three times and thrown just five interceptions, so he hasn’t hurt them much, but the lack of consistency in the passing game has stall the offense lately: they’ve managed only four touchdowns offensively in each of the last two games.

Over his career, Darron has shown a tendency to come out a little amped in big games, occasionally sailing a throw high, over his receivers head or off their hands. He’s been susceptible to the early turnover; he had two picks against Stanford last season as the Ducks built a 21-3 hole before storming back in the second and third quarters, he also threw two errant balls for interceptions in the National Championship Game.

The Ducks need him composed in this one. Stanford’s bent on avenging last year’s loss, and Oregon’s margin of error isn’t nearly as great on the road. They could really use a solid, error-free, sharp performance from Thomas in this one. They need him to be a leader and be precise in the passing game, find open targets when The Cardinal commit hard to the run. He has to handle the pressure. Last week against Washington, Thomas chose to throw away balls when a better scan of his options might have resulted in a completion. He heaved the ball out of harm, but wasn’t able to create anything.

Thomas is a good student of the game and works hard in the film room. He has extra motivation this week playing against Luck who he also faced as a Houston prep. Best case scenario for the Ducks: he pulls it together this week, turns in his best performance of the season, relying on tight end David Paulson, hard running Josh Huff, and the dynamic DAT to make plays for him downfield. He must find the balance between energy, focus and composure, and execute from the first possession on. No 21-3 holes this week, no fumbles off his passing hand.

2. Give us one aspect of Oregon’s performance this year that has surprised you for the better and one for the worse?

For the better, it has to be the immediate and amazing impact of the true freshman Thomas, who has scored 12 touchdowns (5 rushing, 6 receiving, and one 93-yard kickoff return), a school record for freshman. Everybody knew from fall camp he could be a great player one day, but to have him come in as a true freshman and play so brilliantly has been amazing to watch, particularly after he had a difficult start with two fumbles against LSU.

For worse, Duck fans have suffered through the complete implosion of All-American Cliff Harris, counted on before the season to be a shutdown corner, big-play defender and punt returner. Harris had six interceptions last year, and two of those came off Andrew Luck. He returned four punts and one interception for touchdowns, and the expectation was he would take a step forward in maturity and become a complete player on his way to a fat NFL contract. Instead he’s had legal and discipline problems, and been a complete nonfactor in Oregon’s success. They could have used his cover ability, but in his absence, two redshirt freshmen, Troy Hill and Terrance Mitchell, and a true freshman, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, have steadily improved to replace not only Harris but also injured senior starter Anthony Gildon at the other cornerback spot.

3. The Ducks’ defense generally isn’t considered to be built to stop a physical team like Stanford. How big of a worry is that for Oregon tomorrow?

It’s a concern and a challenge, but remember that the Ducks shut out Stanford last year in the second half, held juggernaut Auburn to 22 points, and SEC power and #1 LSU to 273 total yards. The Ducks can play defense, and they can play physical. Their defensive line is anchored by 322-pound Ricky Heimuli and 300-pound Wade Keliikipi. Taylor Hart and Ike Remington, the other two tackles in the rotation come in at 283 and 286. They’ll show up, and contest every snap. Outside defensive end Terrell Turner and Dion Jordan are athletic rather than bulky, but both of them are agile and strong. Oregon’s defense is seriously misperceived around the country due to the number of plays they defend. They can play physical too. Ask Chris Polk. In fact, the Ducks have allowed just one 100-yard rushing game all season, Cal’s Isi Sofele getting 112 yards in a 43-15 Webfoot victory.

4. “Oregon wins this game if… ?”

Darron Thomas is sharp and effective, they get David Paulson and De’Anthony Thomas involved, break a big play in special teams and win the battle of turnovers. On defense, they need to be able to get off the field and force some stops, keep Stanford to field goals on two or more possessions.

5. Higher density tomorrow at 5 p.m. PT: Stanford fans inside the stadium or pencil-pushing dweebs in the school’s library?

Stanford is a setting that will never inspire the frenzy of a football factory, but the success of this Cardinal team has steadily built excitement. The stadium will be full and as loud as it’s ever been, with College Game Day in town for a prime time national game. There will also be a large contigent of Duck fans, perhaps as many as 25,000 among the 80,000 in attendance.

There will be plenty of emotion and electricity. And yes, some of our the employers and innovators of tomorrow will be grinding away in the library, oblivious to every bit of it.

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